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Eaters’ Journal: Paowalla, Wasabi, Pasquale Jones, Le Coucou, and More

Field notes from Eater editors about recent meals around New York City

Paowalla: The Soho space forms an L, with a bar in front looking out on Spring Street, followed by a dining room, next a bread bar with a red beehive oven, then a larger, glassed-in dining room which leads to the kitchen. The place is brick-walled and functional, but lacking in design highlights. On the second night after opening, the service was chaotic. But the kitchen mainly hummed, as chef Floyd Cardoz surveyed the room from a seat at the bar.

"It’s good to see him cooking real Indian food," said one of my companions, surveying the menu. Indeed, in his previous venues, he wielded Indian spices to good effect — a sprinkle of cumin here, a tidbit of lemon pickle there — but rarely made Indian dishes. When he did, they were spectacular, as when he served his mother’s Goan chicken at Tabla.

Indeed, the new menu is mainly Indian, including many vegetarian, meat, and fish recipes in several sizes. Front and center is a bread selection, as promised by the name of the place (which means something akin to "bread runner"). Reflecting the chef’s Goan roots, and childhood in Mumbai, there’s the Portuguese bread pao — soft dinner rolls that form the basis of several Indian snacks; and tingmo, a steamed Nepalese bread. A cheddar naan strays into toasted cheese sandwich territory. Not bad. The breads are paired with a choice of pungent chutneys, sauces, and pickles.

Sure, some of Cardoz’s favorite ingredients remain from earlier establishments. Soft-scrambled eggs are served with the aforementioned pao; shishito peppers make their way into pakoras that come heaped with a tart relish propelled by sweet corn. Indeed, much of the menu’s most interesting stuff comes from the selection of short dishes, dubbed Chota. From among the larger dishes, pork ribs vindaloo arrived with a thick dark glaze, tasting more Chinese than Portuguese. (Yes, the Indian restaurant pork barrier has finally been broken!) And a pool of polenta, which the menu inaccurately describes as "uppma," came topped with sautéed wild mushrooms.

The hit of the evening was a sort of Indian poutine: a plate of French fries littered with shaved coconut and garlic, with a sweet, hot trickle of chile sauce. This sort of subtle spicing is what led Pete Wells to exclaim of Cardoz, "[he] deploys spices with as much sophistication and authority as anyone in town." See if you agree, and don’t miss those fries. Robert Sietsema

Wasabi (aka No alarms and no surprises, please): Like many of its brethren (Pret, Chop't, Hale & Hearty, a place under my building called Crisp), Wasabi is one of those Midtown mass market food troughs that inspire existential tailspins. You squeeze your way into the gaggle of sweaty office workers crowded around the food shelves, stare down the slow moving payment line, and wonder why you didn't order delivery today or work from home or get a job outside of the 9 to 5 grind or get a job at all or move to Mexico City like you had always planned. And yet! I enjoy Wasabi. I started going there two weeks ago after avoiding it for two years and have loved every single sushi box. I can't get down with the individually wrapped nigiri but the boxes are seemingly fresh (the amount of product they unload in a day is staggering), healthy, and under $15 per meal. I may do some mental somersaults during the seven minutes I'm actually inside the facility each time, but no one said life was easy. Amanda Kludt

Le Coucou: I had a remarkable first meal at Le Coucou, the highly civilized restaurant from Stephan Starr and chef Daniel Rose. This restaurant is already operating on a world class level, with seamless service and food that is thoughtful, precise, and utterly captivating. But let’s start with the room, which is surely a strong contender for Stone Cold Stunner at the Eater Awards. It is beautiful to behold with its distressed white brick walls and wooden flooring, the furniture plush yet understated. The high ceilings add a sense of grandeur to the proceedings, and the chandeliers cast off a warm, soothing light that adds a sense of intimacy, despite the scale of the space.

It sets the perfect stage for the Janus faced menu which evokes both rustic farmhouse cooking and a refined vision of modern French cuisine. And while there are plenty of luxury ingredients on offer — oysters, lobster, Dover sole, prime filet mignon — it is the offal and the game, rather than the pricey seafood and prime cuts, that I found most interesting. Rose has a way of coaxing unexpected flavor from ingredients like tripe, which is served as a schnitzel, and veal tongue, which is aided and abetted by a dollop of crème fraîche and American white sturgeon caviar. Most impressive is the whole rabbit, served in a variety of ways — the legs are marinated in mustard and roasted, the saddle is stuffed with the liver and cut into tender medallions, while the remaining portions are rendered into a broth spiked with shallots, garlic and parsley. I have never had better rabbit. This is serious, professional cooking that hasn’t surrendered its soul to technique or rococo ingredients.

I cannot wait to return to Le Coucou, and not just because I skipped dessert and have been admonished for it, but because I want to eat my way through the entire menu. This is precisely the sort of sophisticated, adult restaurants we need more of downtown. I am also curious as to what Starr has up his sleeve, between Le Coucou, The Clocktower and Upland he is on a serious roll. Nick Solares

Wildair: Wildair has won all the awards this year, landed on all of the lists, and attracted countless regular diners. I hadn't been in nearly six months, but finally revisited my favorite restaurant of 2015/2016 earlier this week and was happy to see it is still packed and still incredible. Like its sister restaurant Contra, it's challenging classic dishes with unexpected textures and spices; sweetness and acidity; it's blowing expectations out the door. There's an exuberance about it, a youthful, optimistic glow. May New York restaurateurs, developers, and financiers take heed: We need more of this, and more from the chef power duo of Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone. Daniela Galarza

Pasquale Jones: The Pasquale Jones dessert this week (there is always only one option, a combo of fruit and ice cream) was grilled peaches and apricots with vanilla ice cream, a cookie (almond?), a drizzle of olive oil, and a pinch of salt. I can't stop thinking about how good it was and am going to recreate it on my own this weekend. Amanda Kludt

-321° Ice Cream Shop: I generally believe the world needs more liquid nitrogen desserts. One of the most magical culinary experiences on planet earth involves watching a waiter at The Fat Duck pour custard base – out of an eggshell no less – into an LN2-filled copper pot and make bacon ice cream in seconds. Almost as wonderful was an early meal at Next in Chicago, when chef Dave Beran made dessert wine sorbet for our table by dumping a bottle of Sauternes into a bowl and whisking it with liquid nitrogen; the result was an intensely creamy frozen treat with zero crystals (thanks to the quick freezing) and zero additives (like simple syrup or lemon). The second the sorbet hit the tongue it reverted back into a perfectly balanced wine. It was pure product, pure technique. So when I strolled by the futuristic -321°in Williamsburg, an emporium dedicated to dazzling patrons with ice-cream made a la minute with sub-zero steam, I was pretty stoked. Then I ate the ice cream and became quickly un-stoked.

To be more precise, I waited about 7 minutes after ordering the ice cream before actually eating any. Remember, they don’t just scoop it; they make every batch to order. That brings us to lesson no.1: When there are a whole bunch of people ordering ice cream (as is often the case during the summer), it’s easier and cheaper to run an ice cream shop with extra metal scoopers than a venue with extra LN2 delivery vehicles. Lesson No.2 is that liquid nitrogen can make ice cream just a bit too cold. And I’m not talking about "I just took the Talenti gelato out of the freezer too cold" I mean this ice cream was Ted Williams cryogenic outer space black hole cold. And as a result it had the coarse texture of beach pebbles, and the flavor of, well, it didn’t have much flavor because the temperature was nearly burning my tongue. Cost: Nearly $7 for a single serving. But others will pay less; patrons who Instagram their ice cream and get 50 plus likes get 15 percent off their next visit. There you have it. Williamsburg dessert shops are now setting analytics goals for their patrons in exchange for cheaper product, foreshadowing a post-apocalyptic cashless economy where people barter for scarce resources using social media impressions. — Ryan Sutton

Two wood-burning pizza ovens with counter seating in front Nick Solares/Eater

Pasquale Jones: I had the pork shank at Pasquale Jones and you should too. I don’t know of a cheaper cut of meat that offers this much flavor and value. For $50 you get a truncheon of shank, the bark deeply bronzed and redolent with fennel, rosemary and black pepper, the meat itself imbued with a lovely pink color, and as tender as filet. The evocation here is of course porchetta, which uses the same spice combination, but the result is more steak-like and since it is cooked for long hours in the wood fired oven, the pork has hints of smoky flavor to bolster the inherent sweetness of the cut. The shank may have been the highlight, but the entire PJ experience is great, from the service to the wine list to the buzz of the room. PJ’s represents everything that is right about casual dining in Downtown NYC in 2016. Nick Solares

Le Coucou: For the past several days, despite the fact that walking around New York City in July feels like walking around in someone's mouth, all I can think about is Stephen Starr and Daniel Rose's richly sauced, calorie heavy new restaurant Le Coucou. It's proof that New York is still a city full of francophiles, myself (begrudgingly) included. Rose — a Chicago transplant famous for Spring, his restaurant in Paris — is serving quenelles de brochet that rival those at Daniel. Also on the menu is halibut under a blanket of beurre blanc; the time I went it was ginger beurre blanc and I nearly slapped the waiter's hand when he tried to remove my plate — there was at least half a tablespoon of sauce left on it. My reflexes notwithstanding, the service is impeccable. Desserts ride a line between classic and avant garde: There's a perfect triangle of Opera cake and a marshmallow-y chiboust with red-wine cherries, but the rice pudding spiked with Chartreuse is the most interesting thing I've tasted in a long while. It's the type of finish to a meal that lingers long after the night is over. Le Coucou may be offering somewhat heavier food than is appropriate for July, but come October it's going to be the hottest thing since Andrew Carmellini's Lafayette. Daniela Galarza

Fletcher’s: I rolled into Fletcher's a few minutes after it opened for a to-go order that included char siu, burnt ends, mac & cheese, and pulled pork. Proprietor Matt Fisher was working the counter, and he was kind enough to hand me a slice of the red pork with a touch of the house sauce, so I could taste it before it entered the carryout bag. It was definitely one of the best bites of 2016 for me —super juicy meat imbued with a clean, smoky flavor. It tasted great an hour later out of the bag, but the smokiness had mellowed a bit and the meat didn't have as much spring as it did in the restaurant. All the other food was tasty too, especially the pulled pork. I'm getting a lot more take-out these days because my kid is becoming increasingly finicky at restaurants. But the red pork is a good reminder that some foods are meant to be enjoyed at the source. — Greg Morabito

Top photo: Paowalla

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